Appliances & Commitment

Car companies use special effects to show what
 their cars can’t do.  This only underlines the
absurdity of it all

I’m having trouble enjoying car ads.  I’ve always loved cars since I was a kid, but when I’m watching ads that show driving a car on the road as some kind of noble physical pursuit I’m finding them impossible to take seriously.  When you factor in the increasing use of special effects to show what the car being sold can’t do, it only serves to underline how absurd it is to market the idea of car as a physical extension of the self.  In addition to being dishonest, it isn’t how and why the vast majority of people drive.

More than most cars, the Acura RLX can make a claim to be a driver’s car.  The end tag line about how amazing things can happen when man and machine connect is where this is beginning to break down for me.  How connected can you possible be to an automatic, climate controlled machine that weighs two tons?  It isn’t what you could call an intimate relationship.

GM seems to have gone all in with the special effects.  Their econo-box is a skateboard, robot dogs abound, and the new Corvette can help you battle aliens.  The use of special effects to show what a car can’t do (but how it’s supposed to make you feel)  is becoming a key part of marketing these transportation appliances.

At the bike course one of our instructors talked about how tiring it is to ride a bike, especially when you’re starting out.  We were all sitting there sweaty and tired in the classroom after a couple of hours manhandling bikes around increasingly complicated courses.  He asked us about our commute to the course that morning, what were we doing as we drove our cars?  One hand on the wheel, a foot on the gas?  Listening to the radio?  All in a  controlled environment remote from the road.

Now, he says, think about what you were just doing out there.  One foot on the gear shift, one foot on the rear brake, left hand on the clutch and indicators, right hand on the front brake, both arms steering, using your whole body to lean the bike into corners and resist the wind.  Riding is a calisthenic activity, and it demands much more of your attention because the result of inattention is never just a fender bender.

The only time I’ve come close to the same experience on four wheels was when I was cart racing in Japan or doing advanced driver training at Shannonville.  Knowing how intense and demanding that kind of driving is helped me a lot in taking the bike course, but it’s not how most people will ever drive a car.  To 99.9% of drivers a car is a transportation appliance, a necessary means of getting somewhere; it’s why everyone is so attentive and skilled on the road.  You can try and market a person’s connection with their car in mystical undertones of human/machine perfection or simply paint it absurd with special effects, but the fact remains: the vast majority of  automotive drivers are in it for the same reason that we buy any appliance: to get a job done we’d rather not do ourselves.

Having ridden for a couple of months now, I’m beginning to see why bike riders tend toward a sense of superiority when it comes to being on the road.  Watching car companies go into graphic detail about how athletic you’ll be in your two ton box starts to look absurd when you consider how drab the process of driving a car on public roads actually is; it requires a bare minimum of commitment.

One of the things that strikes me every time I get on the bike is how naked I feel.  I’ve never looked at the surface of a road so closely, or been so aware of where the painted lines are, or of what the weather is doing, or what condition my bike is in.  I think all riders feel this, even if they don’t articulate it.  It’s one of the reasons they tend to give each other a wave as they pass by; they are recognizing the commitment to the road that is lacking in appliance drivers.

This isn’t to say that driving can’t be athletic.  I’m an avid Formula One fan and I think those drivers are some of the finest athletes in the world, a truly balanced blend of physical endurance, strength and intelligence.  But on a public road there is only one form of driving that comes close to that level of commitment, dedication and focus, and it has never been on four wheels, no matter how exciting car companies want to dress up the operation of their appliances.

Anti-Edtech or Anti-Distraction?

Originally published on Dusty World way back in September of 2014:

Is technology in the classroom a distraction or a tool for improving learning?  The results of vastly improved student learning from technology haven’t materialized, yet we continue to throw money at educational technology hoping that it will help.

A wise internet jedi recently shared an article in which a new media professor is putting an end to digital distraction in a class in which he teaches about digital distraction.  A better person to explain the assumptions we make about digital technology you’d be hard pressed to find.  He had a couple of quotes that really punched assumptions about edtech use in the face.

“Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.”

“Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting; when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.”

The concept of multitasking has long been championed by the rise of the digital native crowd.  It’s something we poor immigrants to this brave new world simply can’t do like they can, except it isn’t.  If you want to follow the science rather than the marketing, you’ll find that multi-tasking is indeed a myth.  If you want to do something well, you focus on it.  That might seem like simple common sense, but you’ll find a lot of digital education evangelists pushing for it anyway.

For the Luddites that want to attack computers themselves for this dilemma, he had this:

“programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go.”

As a philosophically minded technologist I straddle this uneasy divide between the tech-hater and the fan-boy/girl, and I like neither.  Where I see computer technology as a tool to use, many others either vilify or champion it from an emotional angle.  I struggle mightily in class to get students to stop this emotional love/hate relationship with computers that many model on the adults in their lives, but it’s a simple truth when Shirky says our computers are now designed to be distractions.  If you’re only going to be a user, you’re going to be a loser.

Clay Shirky goes on to describe the intellect as the rider atop an elephant of emotions, desires and urges.  The rider may direct the elephant occasionally, but when the two are in conflict the elephant will usually win.  This is what happens when you put a distraction engine like the modern internet in front of a child whose rider is still working out how to direct the elephant (not that many adults are better).  No wonder I find it a continual frustration to direct students… and I’m teaching computers designed to distract!
The engagement game we play in education nowadays is based on this battle with software designed to distract.  As Shirky says, we’re bringing whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and losing badly.  When we decide to get in sync with the modern world we are actually downgrading education in order to play the distraction game in the same split attention, broken thinking world that has people driving into each other.
Educational IT should be the leading edge, designed to vary student access to digital technology in order to promote pedagogy at every step.  What it shouldn’t be is what it is, a hand-me-down variety of the very software and hardware that is causing the problem in the first place.  This realization puts concepts like BYOD, tech-branded education and open internet access in a very awkward place if you want to champion learning over engagement, though I get the sense that engagement has infected educational management much as it has everything else.

This infected thinking, the kind that has monetized the internet and made a generation of software engineers billionaires, demands constant human attention.  When everything touched by technological integration gets infected with the idea of deep psychological engagement, people in the world become little more than variables in an economic equation.

Education is now just another enabler in a digital distraction  end game that is infecting society as a whole.

Learning Without A Safety Net

As a learner I tend to have problems following curriculum (I have trouble following it as a teacher too).  For me, learning is a challenging, self-directed, non-linear activity.  It’s a delight  when you have that eureka moment and frustrating when you’re can’t grasp a concept because you don’t have enough context around it.  I don’t want it to be easy, and I don’t want it to be fail-proof.  Classes that are unfailable are pointless in my eyes; difficulties in learning are what make it empowering!  Success shouldn’t be assured, if it is, you’ve sacrificed any real sense of accomplishment.

If a teacher, closely following set curriculum, spoon feeds me a lesson, I don’t feel that I’ve learned it, so much as learned the wrong thing (being told how to do it rather than figuring out how to do it).  When students ask me to resolve a problem for them, I point them in the right direction, I don’t fix it for them.  They aren’t in class to learn how to ask someone to correct their grammar, operate Adobe Flash or build a computer, they are in class to learn how to do these things for themselves.  If they’re miles from figuring it out for themselves, I simply try and close that gap, but never take the last step, they need to do that themselves, or they won’t own their learning.  To quote the mighty Morpheus, ” I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it. ”

I set up my classrooms as research centres and each assignment as a project.  The environment should quickly and easily provide the tools needed to learn in a hands-on way.  Failures aren’t failures, the only way to fail is to do nothing (which an increasing number of students seem to be doing once they realize how hard it is to fail in the current system).  I encourage experimentation, and the opportunities found in resolving your own misunderstandings.  Most of all, I make it very clear that the only way to fail is to make no attempt.  Once students are engaged, they inevitably find success in a supportive learning environment.

I did this in English and it often caused conflict with the force-feeders who feel that you’re not teaching unless you’re talking at the class.  Those force-feeders are as often students as they are teachers; the expectation of most academic students are that the teacher will give you information, you’ll repeat it back, and see high grades.  Giving them room to fail makes them very nervous.  Seeing that the technology curriculum is actually based on this idea of broad based, project focused learning, I’m looking forward to teaching a subject built upon this open, student centred approach.  I loved teaching art for the same reason; project based, hands-on learning with lots of time for me to work one on one with students as they develop tangible skills.

In a tightly restricted, curriculum based classroom, I feel like I’m trying to dance in a straight jacket (both as a teacher, and as a student).  I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be some focus, but the moment you dictate the entire process of learning, you effectively kill any personal meaning or satisfaction in it.

Stop and take in the moment…

Last year I was stuck behind a large group of cruisers and wondered out loud on the Concours Owners Group what the etiquette is for passing them.  It’s hard to pass a big group because of their shear size, and breaking up their formation by having to pull back in during a pass seems rude.  In addition to upsetting several bikers (a word I don’t use to describe myself), I got some good advice from motorcyclists who have been doing it for a long time.  The best advice came from a fellow who said that if he comes across a mobile chicane like that he just pulls over has a smoke and ponders things.  He then gets back onto an empty road in a contemplative state of mind.  Why so be in such a rush?

I liked his Zen approach though it isn’t in my nature to do it.  The other day on my short commute into work I was riding behind an ancient Muppet in an SUV who was barely doing 40 in a 60 zone.  He wasn’t going to work, but he’d elected to hop into his mobile castle and putter down the road in front of as many people as he could.  With a bike your power to weight ratio is stratospheric.  It’s (very) easy to make a pass, but rather than feed the speed monster I tried pulling over.  It helped that it was an absolutely stunning October morning with golden sun streaming through ground fog…

I stopped, turned off the bike, and sat on the side of the road for a few minutes soaking it up.  Once you drop the gotta-pass thing the urge quickly fades away.  In the stillness of that sunrise I became aware of what was pushing me.  Part of me was already thinking through all the things I had to do when I got to work and anxiety to get it all done was taking root without me noticing it, hence the urge to blow off traffic.  Your subconscious can be a pain in the ass that way, infecting what was otherwise a beautiful morning ride in to work with an unnecessary sense of urgency.  It’s nothing that a moment of reflection can’t beat back though.  How often have you reacted to stress or pressure by passing it on to something else?  I transfer moods like this all the time.

I took a couple of more minutes and photographed the sunrise…

Back on the bike I continued in to work, getting there five minutes later than I otherwise would have but in a mellow state of mind.  I actually caught up with the Muppet and his train of frustrated commuters in the next town over, so my five minute sojourn with the rising sun didn’t make me any later than I would have been anyway.

This Zen break was easy because nature was putting on a show, but it’s a habit I’d like to try and get into.  Nurturing a calmer mindset results in deeper thoughts, and time to ruminate is one of the reasons I love riding a motorcycle so much.  The time to reflect doesn’t hurt either.  If I can sense when worldly pressures are infecting my mindset on the bike I’ll become a better rider.

Which Digital Overlord Do you Bow To?

I’m pretty handy when it comes to technology, but the past week has really underlined for me just how proprietary digital technology has become.  In the past seven days I’ve had to root my phone and I’m still struggling to free the magazines I have purchased from the clutches of Apple.

With content so closely tied to software delivery, and more and more of that software delivery being locked to specific hardware, you seemingly have to accept the fact that you don’t own anything you legally download from the internet without also accepting that the only way to view it is through a multinational’s proprietary ecosystem.

While the tech giants are holding each other off with proprietary technology, the humans run for cover.  Tech used to be all about user empowerment, its first duty now is to the multinational that created it, users are way down the priority list.

I’m just over two years into a three year contract with Telus.  Last year Samsung decided that my Galaxy Note2 wasn’t allowed to update the Google Android operating system that runs on it.  I normally wouldn’t care, but Google Play keeps updating the apps I have on the phone, eventually making a number of them incompatible with my stale version of Android.

Why would Samsung do this?  It’s been two years, it’s time to force me into an upgrade to a new phone.  This wouldn’t be an issue in most markets where telecoms can’t bully customers, but it’s only recently that Canada decided to join the rest of the first world in limiting its cellular carriers in terms of abusive contracts.  Why would Telus shrug about my phone problems?  Because they are selling me a new phone early, even while I’m still on a contract that was deemed unfair to consumers.

What’s left for the user?  The hacker community, thankfully.  After having a chat with my students (all of whom have hacked their phones), I found Jedi X and installed it on the Note2.  Suddenly the phone is faster than it’s ever been, no stability issues at all, lots of extra features that I got to select, and best of all, I’m not forced to run any of the cruft that Telus and Samsung demand I run ‘under contract’.

I’m suddenly no longer the owner of a phone that bricks itself every two hours and needs the battery pulled to restart it.  I’m also the owner of a Note2 that makes lightsaber noises whenever you take the stylus out (I can’t express how happy this makes me). Without the modding community I’d be stuck with a useless phone and paying my way out of a contract that wouldn’t be legal in most of the world, and isn’t legal any more in Canada.

So, with the phone hacked and sorted, I turned to Apple’s Newsstand.  I’ve been using an ipad mini to read, but some magazines on the newsstand are locked to aspect ratio and zoom.  Since they were designed for a regular ipad, they don’t present well on the mini.  Fortunately, after much searching, I’ve found a tablet that I actually enjoy using.  The Microsoft Surface is a tablet that also lets me snap a keyboard on and do work as a full Intel i5 laptop.  I can even do photoshop and video editing on it!  Its high resolution screen is comfortable for reading too.

Like my Microsoft iPad?
It can also be a Microsoft
Android tablet, or a linux
PC, or, you know, a
Windows PC.

Should be no problem, right?  Just install itunes and I’ll be able to access the content I paid for.  Um, no.  Apple locks that content to an i-device.  You don’t own the magazine you paid for, it only exists when you’re looking at it through an Apple iOS screen.  I don’t save money buying electronic subscriptions, each magazine costs me $3.99 instead of $6.99 for a paper copy, plus the price of an ipad.

As you might imagine, Apple doesn’t make an ipad emulator, but lots of other people have.  A couple of downloads later (and a second OS install) and I’m in business, reading the content I paid for on the device of my choice.  I can also boot the Surface into Android mode and view Google Apps on it.  I’m sure this is breaking all kinds of Apple, Microsoft and Google legalese, which is really the point of this whole piece.

There was a time when digital technology was designed to empower users at all costs; the user wasn’t the first thing, they were the only thing.  Users weren’t a data point to be mined, or consumer to be duped into committing to a closed ecosystem, they weren’t buried in legalese and they could expect hardware to run software without worrying about the brand on it.

In the earlier days of digital technology, before these digital giants (who are now synonymous with high-technology) turned this into a vicious game of one-upmanship capitalism, we could depend on digital tech to offer real improvements over the way we used to do things.  Recently I’ve found myself instead wondering what the angle is every time I see a new digital delivery system.

The good news is most people aren’t bothered to learn ways around it and just keep feeding the giants money.  For the few who are willing to learn and experiment, there are always work arounds.

The State of Educational Hashtags, FEB 2012

I’ve become quite habitual in my use of hashtags, and haven’t really been exploring the edges.  At conferences I’m diligent about following and using the correct hastag, but when it comes to topic specific ideas, I tend to resort to the basics (#edchat #edtech).

I thought it time to look into the current state of edu-hashtags and try and dig up some new resources for them.

An interesting post on the reach of various Education hashtags.  Personal favs from those lists:  #edchat #edtech

Twitter U: lists of Education hashtags with explanations.  Hashtags of interest:

  • #TUfuture: future trends… sounds interesting (and up my alley)
  • #TUtin: tech integration in specific teaching areas
  • #mlearning: mobile learning using mobile tech
  • #vitalcpd: effective use of tech in the classroom
  • #elearning: dedicated to… fish!  No, just kidding, it’s about elearning
Hashonomy: the science of hashtags (in beta right now).

Some Canadian specific hashtags… #cdned: general Canadian education tag.  There are some BC ones that I don’t follow too much, such as #bced, though I should.

Anyone got any Ontario educational hashtags or other Canadian specific ones?  Not that I get that wound up about geographically specific tags – they tend to not get the point of the internet (common interests matter more that geographical proximity).

Reply with any I missed!  I want to poach your hashtag knowhow!

February: the bike is apart and I’m getting there

It’s February and I’m squirrelly.

The Ninja has been cleaned to within an inch of its life.  I’ve cleaned up the frame and painted it.  Now that I’ve got the bike stripped down I’m going to change the plugs and clean the air filter before rebuilding it.  Two Wheeled Motorsports just down the road near Guelph on Highway 6 had everything I needed and offered some good advice too.

By the time the roads begin to clear (assuming they do) I’ll have a spotless Ninja to ride on them.

The insulated garage has been doing good work.  A small shop heater will raise -20°outside temperatures to 15° in the shop, and having the tools organized has helped get a lot of work done, but what I really want to do is go ride.

Can you ride in the winter?  Apparently.  Since seeing the new KLR at 2-Wheel this week I’m once again thinking about selling the Ninja and dual-sporting up.  It’d let me ride in more conditions more often.  I’d rather keep both bikes, but insurance is punitive and I couldn’t afford to pay twice as much.

March break would be a good time of year to take a trip somewhere and enjoy a few days of riding, just to get this monkey off my back.

Night Riding: batman

It’d been a long, hot night in lodge.  Putting on a tuxedo isn’t exactly comfortable at the best of times, stewing in one for three hours was worse.  I’d finally sprung free from cleanup and was looking forward to a cool, dark ride home.

Even now it was still well above 20°C, but the warm night air over mesh pants and jacket was dramatically cooler than a room full of guys in suits.  The Tiger fired up at first touch, eager to make some wind.

Riding at night doesn’t happen very often, and when it does it tends to be the end of a long day where the goal is to get home, but the magic of night riding quickly reaches out and grabs me.  The smells are different and strong.  Reflective eyes follow me from every hedgerow and the stars are wheeling overhead.  Ground fog flashes past in low lying areas and my headlights tilt dramatically as I round corners on dark country lanes.

Suddenly, without warning something hits me in the visor – more precisely, I knock it out of the air with my face.  Whatever it was hits me hard enough to get off the throttle and coast while I assess the damage.  Insects attain Jurassic Park sizes in Canada in the summer, but this wasn’t that.  Whatever it was bounced off the visor and hit my right shoulder, where it scratched desperately at my mesh jacket before the wind blast threw it over my shoulder into the dark.

Tiredness and heat exhaustion had been washed away with a surge of adrenaline.  I had big eyes behind that scarred visor.  Was it a cicada?  A June bug?  Those things grow baseball sized up here.  That desperate scratching feeling over my shoulder was still freaking me out.

I got my head together and pushed on into the night.  With no moon the Milky Way arched overhead.  Closing in on the one horse town of Oustic I tried a night time 360° photo which came out blurry but cleaned up nicely in Photoshop (on the right).

I rolled into my driveway well past 11pm.  As I rolled the Tiger into the garage and took my jacket off I discovered that it was splattered with blood.  My best bet is that I knocked a bat out of the air with my face.  He was probably doing his thing picking those Jurassic Park sized bugs out of the sky when my head came flying through space and took him out.  If I’d have seen him coming I would have ducked, but black bats at night are hard to pick out.

Better a bat than the rodent of unusual size I saw on the road half an hour later.  I don’t know what that was either, but it gave me a long look with reflective yellow eyes before it ambled off into the undergrowth.

Riding at night is magical, but not without its dangers.

from Blogger